Human in Chair, Writing

Life has started to really take its toll on me. I’m more tired, grayer, weightier, unfocused. There was a brief respite where my ego had time to rise – to think about goals and ambitions and productivity. Productivity. I’ve come to hate that word. It makes us all sound like robots. But robots don’t have children who get tumors. Again. Robots don’t watch their friends go through chemo treatment or their parents suffer from Alzheimer’s or partners in chronic pain. Robots don’t wake up each and every day wondering what that day might hold.

If it sounds as if I’m getting a little dark, stay with me. There is light. Eventually.

This has been a year of unending anxiety and constant resetting of expectations and plans – more than the usual chaos of being human. I found myself constantly saying I just need to find my center. I just need solitude. I just need a few days without menopausal shifts. A week without anxiety. A few nights of good, solid sleep. Then I will feel better. Then I will feel like me. Normal. Balanced.

Pardon me while I break into hysterical, teary laughter.

Depression has permeated my brain. We’re in the middle of yet another medical crisis – a drawn out one that will take months to resolve and may have lifelong impact. A parent’s nightmare. Trauma in slow motion. And still, I rise, I demand, get your shit together, Michelle. It’s an unkind, harsh voice. Who needs enemies with a brain like this?

7902654I turn to some old friends in the form of books. I pick up Toni Bernhard’s How to be Sick: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide for the Chronically Ill and Their Caregivers. I read it a few years ago, while supporting my mother-in-law as she wended her way through Alzheimer’s. It was a perfunctory read. Lately, I read with hungry desperation. Tell me how to cope with this. Give me answers.

Sometimes a message reaches you at just the right moment, when you’re an open wound in need of salve. The author of How to be Sick is chronically ill with myalgic encephalomyelitis/chronic fatigue syndrome. I am not chronically ill, nor I hope, is my daughter, but this year has been a chainlink of catastrophes. Situational depression is to be expected. My little family has felt this in a myriad of ways. But still, we trundle on and we play a lot of card games.

There’s a practice I learned from the Bernhard book that I’ve started using. I’d been swimming in the disappointment of expectation. There was a brief space in time when everyone was well, when routine seemed possible. Then another medical scan revealed its terrible news. Immediately anxiety wrapped its death grip around my brain, as it played out every future scenario. Stuck in the past, throttled by the future.

canstockphoto16849001

The only tolerable memes.

If there’s anything that annoys me more, it is that every idea or thought is memed now. The be present exhortation is on coffee mugs, t-shirts, people’s email signatures, and one of the first pieces of advice that pops out of anyone’s mouth who imagines themselves to be wise or enlightened. Like a sulky teenager, I tend to react badly to what everyone else says or does. I’m likely to do the opposite, even when it shoots me in the foot. This time, though, I just have to ignore the commodification of an idea and focus on what it really means.

The practice is this: state exactly what you are doing in the present moment (Bernhard credits Byron Katie with this practice). As a writer, I find this interesting and sometimes amusing to do. Woman standing at sink, washing dishes. Person raking leaves. I like the paucity of words, the practice of narrowing the world down to subjects and verbs – seeing the world as it is actually happening, where nothing is before and nothing after. People easily say be present, but this is a practice that requires mechanics. Same goes for meditation. You need the mechanics to start you down the path. Focus on your breath. State what is happening.

38746152I started reading Ross Gay’s The Book of Delights yesterday. It reminds me that every single moment is filled with life – that there is beauty and curiosity wherever you are, but you have to be there, really there to notice it. I watched as my daughter slid in and out of the PET scan machine. She was swathed in a white blanket and my mind shot back to her crib nearly 14 years ago. I looked down at her round, rosy-cheeked face, her brilliant blue eyes, and her dark, spiky hair. At that moment, I wasn’t seeing radiation warning signs or hearing the beeping of machines. But that memory came with a terrible longing and I could feel the tears well up. It was bad time travel. Woman watching over daughter. Then, but more importantly, now.

So I practice. I practice reminding myself of what is. I practice deep breathing. I try not to be so cruel to myself. I write here, because it is my duct-taped practice of Buddhist Tonglen – giving or sending, receiving or taking. When I say the hard parts out loud, I feel the suffering recede. I see that we do our best, all of us. I see that there is beauty to be found in this very moment, in you, in me, in the world. We just have to open our eyes to what is in front of us.

50 Comments on “Human in Chair, Writing

  1. I’m sorry that you’re going through a difficult point in your life, but I like your way of handling it. The books you mention are new to me, but obviously have helped you find your center more often than not. Being present is good but there are moments when being elsewhere can balance your mind. Hoping today finds you better than yesterday.

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    • Thanks, Ally. I’m really leaning into the idea of “noncontention”. We spend a lot of energy arguing with what is – the unfairness, trying avoidance, which in turn, causes us to suffer more. I like the idea of creating choice in spaces where there seems like there are none. I would not choose these circumstances, but I do get to choose how I cope, how I support, how I view each moment. But like most things, it’s a skill that requires practice.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I was just thinking about you yesterday, thinking it had been a while since your last blog. I’m sorry to hear the reason why. I am sorry you are going through this again. You are way overdue for some peace and quiet and hope it comes soon and lasts long.

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    • Somehow, I thought we’d handle things better this time around. And we are, in some ways. Better prepared at home for recovery, knowing what is coming. But it does feel like it’s crisis in slow motion. I look forward to being on the other side of this, but until then, I need to keep myself grounded in the here and now. Thanks for the good wishes, Fransi.

      Liked by 1 person

      • There’s certainly no avoiding the here and now no matter how much we might want to, I’ve learned that through the various crises in my own life. But I’m not sure how prepared we ever are, even when we’ve been through it before. One of the most significant lessons I’ve learned is that we’re more resilient than we could ever have imagined. I hope you find yourself on the other side soon and until then, continued strength.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Your essay speaks deeply to me both for the beauty of the writing and for the accuracy with which you describe a situation that I know — not in your particulars, but in the pattern. Thank you.

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  4. Hi Michelle… there is something happening around me which is wonderful. I have got this message to be present not only through your blog post but in other ways too. It is incredibly beautiful to accept the moment as it is. Just finished doing ‘inner engineering’ course by Sadhguru of Isha foundation and felt it at a deeper level. All the best with what you are doing. Every impediment is important to wake us up!

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  5. Love the title and the sentiment. Bernhard’s book is an old favorite in my library, too (I also like her description of broken glass practice), and Gay’s will perhaps become a new one, thanks to your recommendation. Thanks for another illuminating read; I am wishing you courage and calm in a situation that perpetually invites fear and anxiety.

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    • I’m still working on the broken glass practice. I think I’m a bit resistant to it, as I usually am to any new idea. Time and patience and practice. Thanks for the good wishes – I like your use of the word “invite” in regards to fear and anxiety. It reminds me of the idea that vampires can only cross the threshold if you give them permission.

      Ross Gay’s book is an odd little tome, but it suits me now – snippets and observations that remind me of the richness of the world.

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  6. Michelle, I just wrote an eloquent (well, almost eloquent. However, nothing as beautifully said as all the previous comments) message to you. However, my computer decided that I wasn’t to send it as the entire note disappeared. Bam. Gone. So, instead, I’ll just say that your blog is beautifully written, from your very soul, and all of us who aren’t living the turmoil that you and your family are, received the message that we too, need to live the moment, being focused, to receive the gifts of the here-and-now. Thank you. Know that I and your friends and loved ones are sitting here on the sidelines, rooting for you and sending you, through the ethernet, of course, strength, love and hope now and the weeks to come. Love ya.

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  7. Just a thought. If anyone in your family is struggling with chronic illness, you may want to consider eliminating all wi-fi from the house, adding acidophilus/probiotics, and eating mostly organic, simple foods that are easy to digest. Wi-fi causes inflammation and is the base for many modern chronic health challenges. Hard wire the computer; go back to a more analog existence; hope that helps.

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    • While I understand your intent is kindness, I’m irrationally angry about advice right now. I’ve been a conscientious parent and human for years – organic food, no yard chemicals, no plastic vs. glass, limited cell phone usage, blah, blah, blah. Guess what? Your kid can still get sick. Your healthy, beautiful child can someday wake up with a tumor. So my focus is less right now on doing the “right thing” and more on letting go and understanding that you can do all the right things, but many elements of life are simply out of one’s control. Now I want joy. I want this moment of fleeting beauty. I want to hold my girl close and worry less about doing and focus on being.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Perhaps it’s a function of aging, but I’ve had a crash course in the last couple of years about the myriad of things that can go awry with the human body. And once you start opening your mind and have honest conversations with other humans, you realize the immense amount of suffering that comes from the isolation of illness. I hope for you, for all of us, that we have the love and support to make life bearable and at times, even joyful. Seeing ourselves as separate from each other is the affliction of our modern times.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Sending all manner of good healing mojo your way, Michelle. I’m so sorry you all have to go through it all over again. Thanks for the books.

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  9. I liked your post..amazingly I have been feeling the same way this year. Alot has gone on in my life and simply put I’ve had the blahs. Thanks for sharing this message. We all experience stages in life that is not always wonderful. But we have to hang in there and keep on pushing. I believe that things will change not on my time but in God’s timing. Trust….

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  10. O Lord. 😦 I’m so sorry to read of your/family’s worry and struggle continuing a bit longer. I appreciate everything you’ve said here. Please know I’m just one of many out here who is praying for all parties. ❤

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  11. Yes to all this. We just have to open our eyes to what’s right in front of us. No past no future just this nothing wrong. It’s a difficult but healthy practice I think.
    No matter what you are a gifted writer. I just thought I’d say that. Your writing draws me in, makes me care, reminds me of things I already know but don’t always practice.
    Love Byron Katie. I even love the memes that I hate on Facebook that I frequent every day. They remind me over and over to be kind. It’s starting to sink in.
    May your daughter be well. And you too.
    Alison

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    • Thanks Alison. Sometimes I think I write these posts to remind MYSELF of practices I’ve forgotten. But I like the word “practice” these days in a very literal sense. It leaves room for mistakes and imperfections and less condemnation.

      Liked by 1 person

  12. my mother used to say “This, too, shall pass.” I say the present is interminable. At least doing something useful and paying attention to it alleviates worry for a little while.

    I wish I had answers. Thanks for the soul-stirring thoughts. Some moments are harder to be in than others. Sharing your life in such an intimate way has a healing effect and is admirable for its courage and inspiration.

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    • I used to like to say “it’s just a phase, it will pass”. What a frivolous phrase when it comes to issues of life and death. I’ve completely had to switch my frame of mind to “be here, be in this moment, it is the only one assured.” I think a lot about impermanence these days. I’m not sure it’s helpful!
      Thanks for your kind words, Katherine.

      Liked by 2 people

      • I’m not sure thinking about impermanence is helpful, either, Michelle, but it’s more realistic than thinking about permanence.

        Issues of life and death are always with us, so in that sense, they are permanent. And I agree the moment is all that is assured.

        Words are so inadequate . . .

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  13. Good to hear from you again, sorry life has thrown so much at you and your family. I hope you can all find your way through this time.

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  14. I’m sorry Michelle. Life is so hard sometimes. It is perfectly normal to be devastated, and yet we have to perform the functions of our responsibilities also. Just really freaking difficult but maybe there is some salvation in the routine necessities of life we must attend to. And there is beauty, especially in the helpers that are all around us, who can feel like absolute life lines at such times. Wishing you all well.

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    • Thanks Ilona – if there is any lesson to be learned, I have learned how genuinely kind our impulses as humans are. We forget that sometimes. I’ve been reminded repeatedly over this last year and am truly grateful for generous people who have helped our family, as well as the kind wishes here. I hope that it makes me a more kind person in the future.

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  15. Michelle, thank you for continuing to share your experience with us all. Your strength, perseverance, commitment, and vulnerability are inspiring, though I suspect this is not your purpose in writing. I hope you feel supported and held up by your community of readers/followers. We are here with you, sending you love and wishing you everything you need. ❤

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    • Thanks Cathy. I do so appreciate the kind wishes. I sometimes wonder why I write about this, but both my husband and friends frequently remind me that I feel better when I write. They’re correct. It is my limited ability to shape the narrative when everything else is out of my hands that helps, I suppose. Hopefully, I’ll write from a happier place next.

      Liked by 1 person

  16. That’s a darn good reminder, Michelle. I used to say to myself all the time, “be here, now.” It worked. I had a bad habit some years ago of getting in heated arguments, in my head, with the wife, the boss, a co-worker, a friend, etc. It would put me in a bad mood before I ever saw the person I was fighting with, which often led to a disagreement as a self-fulfilling prophecy. So I started to say to myself (like, say, when brushing my teeth as the “argument” began), “be here, now.” It would pull me back to the present, back to the task at hand. Later, when I talked to the person, everything was fine, better than it would be otherwise.

    I hope everything goes well for you and your daughter now, and that this phase passes quickly; that the light is so bright that the darkness fades forever. Best wishes, my friend!

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    • Hi Tom – sorry I didn’t respond sooner. Your comment got caught in the spam filter where you were keeping company with cryptocurrency nuts, cheap drugs, and mail order sex workers. Your comment is now traumatized and in need of a shower. I’ll answer regardless.
      While I find Scientology rather creepy, I read Dianetics when I was younger and one concept always stuck with me. The reactive vs. analytical mind. In basic terms, it just meant the difference between seeing the situation at hand or reacting based on past experiences, triggers, etc. The “be here, now” mantra is a good one to view a situation without prejudgment. I’ve had long arguments that never happened as well. I try these days to give others a wide benefit of doubt, trying to assume the best, and not ascribing to them things that are not actually in evidence. Not always successful, but definitely less aggressive in my thinking than before.

      Liked by 2 people

  17. Pingback: Groundlessness and the Cultivation of Courage | The Green Study

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